The other night, I was listening to Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti describe the notorious site of a proposed Walmart (the Route 924 and Plumtree Road area) as a "traffic nightmare" and watching Councilman Jim McMahan point at a video of traffic steadily piling up, light after light, at the 924 intersection with the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.
I totally agree that driving on 924 is usually an exercise in waiting behind a line of cars, which are waiting for one of the many traffic lights to turn green.
The line is often tied up by one slow car (no offense to the slower drivers among us, but you know who you are) that takes advantage of the one-lane road to drive everyone else crazy.
I spent a lot of time looking at a map, trying to figure out why this should be the case (and yes, I was still paying attention during the council meeting! It's called multitasking).
As I've said before, I'm not a professional planner of any kind. On the other hand, I'm also not directly responsible for reacting to citizens' opinions and I'm not being lobbied by developers. As a reporter, I'm clearly not driven by money.
Anyway, here is my two cents, or at least a couple of things I have noticed over the years.
One principle of design is cul-de-sacs are generally no good. As someone who grew up on a cul-de-sac, I feel I have the right to hate on them a little bit.
They are a nice place to grow up, but they do generate traffic without allowing it to circulate.
Also, in French, cul-de-sac means, literally, "bottom of the bag" and, figuratively, "a situation from which there is no escape," which I think pretty much says it all.
The whole commercial development strip of the Abingdon area dead-ends at Constant Friendship Boulevard. There is no way to go south from that cul-de-sac or, ultimately, north on Tollgate without getting back on 24 - thus contributing your car to the whole 24/924 mess.
So all the drivers of the whole Tollgate Road area are getting funneled into the busiest part of 24 and 924, between Abingdon and Plumtree Road (coincidentally, the proposed Walmart site!).
I would argue that the junction of 24, 924 and Tollgate is also a cul-de-sac of sorts, even though it's technically not. It has three major roads come together, in an odd arrangement, before dumping out into the I-95 intersection.
Another principle of design (and common sense, really) is: Make it easy for people to navigate between places that are close to each other.
Outside of the downtown Bel Air area, it is very difficult to go between places that are, sometimes, technically right next to each other, without getting in your car.
As an example (and hopefully without disclosing too much about my shopping habits), I have driven from, say, Double T Diner on Route 24 to Barnes & Noble.
Those businesses are literally "across the street" but because pretty much no one crosses the street there, drivers are not going to be watching for pedestrians, creating a dangerous situation - and a vicious cycle.
The same principle applies to the Walmart site, and the Route 924 area in general, which is basically 6 miles of constant development, from the Route 24 intersection to the end of Main Street (and, after a little break, north into Forest Hill).
There were plenty of opportunities to actually make development on Route 924 more navigable, but the reality is that even places that are within the same "shopping center" are undesirable to get to except by car.
I have often driven from, say, Panera to Kohl's because walking along that central "street" through Festival (the extension of Blue Spruce Drive) feels dangerous and drivers usually act like you're crazy for trying to do it.
DuClaw or Bob Evans are also, technically, "across the street" from Festival, but you might be risking your life trying to make that trip sans car.
I don't know how to change this situation, not because I think local government isn't trying hard enough, but because I think developers are really the ones in charge.
With all due respect to the democratic process, developers are the Big Cheese and local governments are small potatoes.
Unless developers have an interest (or incentive?) in creating more efficient development and less dangerous traffic patterns, I honestly don't believe it's going to happen.
Our general philosophy seems to be that developers will eventually do the right thing because they know more about market needs and it will ultimately be less profitable for them to build big-box stores or watch us suffer in traffic.